January 22, 2020 | Cle Elum | Central Washington Sentinel | By Bruce Coe~~
Land use planning and exclusionary zoning are, increasingly, coming under fire as a contributor, not a preventer, of inequality. Here is a short rundown on what is happening in other parts of the nation. It might surprise you to find out that Washington State is NOT the center of the universe!
The wet state
What is it about Washington, the self-proclaimed bastion of liberal sensibility? Zoning and planning reform is happening throughout the United States and we’re still stuck with the same Growth Management policies intended to provide us an ordered and sensible path into the future. Let’s take a look at what is happening throughout the US. I’ll leave it to you to ponder the sensibilities of our governor and our legislature.
Here at the Sentinel, we published an old, (and I do mean OLD) study making the case that exclusionary zoning presents racial and income barriers to minorities. Evidence is accumulating that the multiple layers of exclusionary zoning and land use controls are a powerful contributor not just to higher housing costs, but also to declining rates of economic mobility and productivity growth, and to widening disparities in the wealth of white, brown, black…oops… all Americans. Oh well, it’s just those crazy Harvard eggheads spouting off again, not to worry.
Down in the People’s Vegan state of Oregon single-family housing is now outlawed. Density has long been recognized as a solution to the affordable housing crisis. There are only two ways to increase housing densities, vertically or horizontally (or both, so I suppose there are actually three). We seem to be stuck in a horizontal solution right now but sooner or later people are going to have to see that eliminating height restrictions on buildings in residential areas is a viable solution to affordable housing. Not the complete solution, but at least a good start on addressing the basic premise that housing, like office space, is almost purely driven by supply and demand.
And even the much-derided Seattle has come up with some tentative steps towards easing zoning restrictions in residential neighborhoods. Any city that boasts 50% of its land area in a single-family housing zone and a 91% occupancy rate should look first to housing supply for solutions to their affordable housing issue.
And California is crashing and burning, literally and figuratively. Pundits say, “As California goes, so does the nation.” Let’s hope not. The New York Times reports, The booming economy “…has made California the most expensive state — with a median home value of $550,000, about double that of the nation — and created a growing supply of three-hour “super commuters.” And while it has some of the highest wages in the country, it also has the highest poverty rate based on its cost of living, an average of 18.1 percent from 2016 to 2018.”
Even the Washington Post recently published an editorial pointing out the cross-ideological agreement that excessive zoning and land use regulation hurts people. This from the Council of Economic Advisors:
Excessive or unnecessary land use or zoning regulations have consequences that go beyond the housing market to impede mobility and thus contribute to rising inequality and declining productivity growth…some land-use regulations can be beneficial…but in other cases, zoning regulations and other local barriers to housing development allow a small number of individuals to capture the economic benefits of living in a community, thus limiting diversity and mobility.”
So what, exactly, is the point? Here in Washington, we are saddled with the GMA, the Growth Management Act, exactly the kind of excessive regulation that produces the kind of social and economic ills that are plaguing other cities and states throughout the United States.
And worse, the Ruckleshaus Institute, the University of Washington public policy think tank entrusted with a 20-year appraisal and evaluation of the GMA, has concluded that all the state needs to make the GMA more effective is, yes, more planning, more money, and a legion of bright-eyed, newly minted planners to carry out the European vision of land use policy here in Washington state.
The European vision you ask? Yeah, that’s what you see when you watch the Tour de France or Le Mans, or look at the glossy ads for barge tours on the Danube. Perfect little 500+year-old communities populated with expatriate retired Eurozone regulators and a few state-subsidized farms (and a lot of public land ownership).
And just a little aside here, this is the preamble for the Eurozone Common Agricultural Policy (CAP):
“Launched in 1962, the EU’s common agricultural policy (CAP) is a partnership between agriculture and society, and between Europe and its farmers. It aims to
- support farmers and improve agricultural productivity, ensuring a stable supply of affordable food
- safeguard European Union farmers to make a reasonable living
- help tackle climate change and the sustainable management of natural resources
- maintain rural areas and landscapes across the EU
- keep the rural economy alive by promoting jobs in farming, agri-foods industries, and associated sectors
The CAP is a common policy for all EU countries. It is managed and funded at the European level from the resources of the EU’s budget.”
All that sounds drearily familiar. Ask the displaced former generational landowners how that all worked out. They’re all living on government subsidies or crowding European cities looking for work.
To kind of bring it home, Kittitas County is changing and there is no overall vision to guide us (other than the State’s vision for us) and there is not a single elected official who has bothered to enunciate a vision for the future of the county. And for those of you who point to our Comprehensive plans as guidance, that is exactly what it is not. Comp plans are a bunch of feel-good ideas that cover so much territory that there is no discernable vision or principle to be seen. The Comprehensive Plan is guidance, not policy and it is there to nudge people in the right (or wrong) direction. It can be changed whenever anybody with enough money comes to town and wants to ‘refine’ it.
The concept of central planning, long the darling of statists and communists alike, is failing our citizens, and the planners’ response is plan harder, plan harder. It will take a county with the vision and principled leadership to buck the trend of top down regulation and engage the state in the next battle for the soul of Kittitas County. But where are they? It’s not looking too good for the home team right now.